Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is becoming an increasingly prominent topic in social discourse. Government entities from traditional social and political organisations through the military establishment now promote extensive diversity policies, focusing attention upon minority groups and the opportunities they are afforded. But government is not alone, the conversation encompasses commercial and education bodies throughout developed Western societies. These are not new issues, but they are receiving heightened attention, primarily for the position being taken by the institutions themselves, historically bastions of elitism and a staggering lack of diversity.
The overtly vocal diversity and inclusion policies announced across the spectrum of social media platforms have drawn the err of incumbent and historic members of these organisations. “I believe in tolerance of all makes and models of human, but we should promote a meritocracy over equality of outcomes” is a common refrain. When applied to a narrow field, this point-of-view becomes self-evident. In April, a large US airline announced in its plan to train 5,000 pilots by 2030, at least half of whom would be woman or people of colour. This created nothing short of an outcry among both pilots and members of the public who protested that they don’t care what the person up front looks like, they just want the best person for the job.
Similarly, the UK Ministry of Defence has been actively promoting D&I policies for about five years with these becoming increasingly visible in day-to-day policy. The UK is not alone in taking this approach, however. In perhaps the most direct challenge to D&I policies to date, the winning entry of the New Zealand Defence Force writing competition was titled, Can the Army Afford to Go Woke, Benign Social Progress or National Security Threat? The essay, the author admits, “will be my own opinion based on my own observations and experience. This opinion may be unpopular, especially with that vocal minority in the civilian world who have become so enamoured with so-called ‘Woke’ culture.” Against this backdrop it argued, do we want the best soldiers fighting to protect our freedoms, or just those who make up the right quota of colours and orientations to ensure everyone feels included?
Social justice conversations are inherently fraught; reputations seemingly hang on a knife edge. The court of public opinion is dominated by the technologically savvy, the socially adept, and the morally enlightened. Reminiscent of a Roman emperor holding his thumb aloft in endorsement or condemnation, a culture defining legion are able to turn the tide of public opinion with a Twitter post. As a podcaster and sometimes time blogger, I too promote my voice and views in the public domain whether I care to admit it or not. In the last year I have addressed a variety of social justice issues. My views may be more academic than impassioned, however I do this not because I am afraid of being too outspoken or sharing how I really feel. Rather, I am simply sharing my journey in real time as I navigate these perilous waters and attempt to understand in the context of my upbringing, how my worldview and that of my contemporaries enables and perpetuates systemic inequalities in society. I listen, reflect, and try to be empathetic. Do I think of myself as woke? If we take that to mean to be awakened to a broader conception of reality, then yes. The term need not be pejorative.
My training in psychology frequently touches upon many of the social issues raised here and in my recent podcasts. This is important because in order to understand people, which is what psychologists attempt to do, they need to understand how society thinks about people. In order to help people, psychologists need to understand what cultural baggage they bring with them and how that may influence their work. Be that in a one-on-one therapeutic setting, as an educator of the next generation of young academics, or as a policy advisor to an enterprise or government ministry. This has been a fascinating and, at times, painful process as I represent much of what D&I policies aim to dilute. I am white, a male, heterosexual, a pilot, middle class. I am told over again, everything about me is the problem. If I’m not careful, I may find myself in the midst of an identity crisis, not knowing who I am supposed to be, not knowing whether I can be proud of my achievements or permitted to express a view which differs from the prevailing discourse. The problem is not that I am me though, it is whether I’ll resist the social forces of D&I that aim to topple me, and others like me, from our hegemonic grip on society and instead try to understand the problem.
If we were to agree that equality of outcome may displace those best suited to a role in order to meet a quota of colour, sexuality, or of some other category, then what do we propose as an alternative? We propose equality of opportunity. But what does that mean? At face value it means when your application arrives on the recruiters desk it is not subject to scrutiny against any of the superficial qualities of social categorisation; it considers only qualifications, and potential. The selection and interview process should do the same. Then, without bias, the best people for the job are selected. D&I policies should, therefore, get everyone to the starting line, and may the best person win. That sounds fair and reasonable, and it is, if that was how it really is.
The problem is that the road to the starting line is paved for some, and unpaved for others.
It is a sad reality that we do not all begin life with equal opportunities. This is simply luck. It can be argued that a minority candidate has worked much harder to reach that starting line because of the adversity inherent to following the unpaved road. When I see a woman in the cockpit, I acknowledge that she has worked harder than I will ever have to, and even after many years, she must continually prove herself. Because to succeed in a male dominated environment requires her to be exceptional, always. She dare not have a bad day at the office and make the slightest error, for the “see, I told you so” crowd of misogynists will pounce upon her in between their sexually suggestive, patronising remarks.
The question remains, though. In critical areas, like aviation or the defence of a nation, how do we assure both safety and effectiveness, and diversity and inclusion simultaneously? We are seeing resistance to a top-down approach, where D&I is enforced from the top, and not surprisingly this is causing friction. We know why. The starting line is configured to receive the products of a society that has made norms out of roles, reality out of expectations.
To better address this deficiency in equality would be a bottom-up approach where life opportunities are as balanced as possible and norms are deconstructed, so the starting line is equally attainable by all. But this is a far more difficult strategy than the top-down approach. To achieve harmony of public opinion, norms and values, is not impossible, but it is slow. It begins with our children and the school environment. It flows on throughout their lives, so they become adults with less of the biases and prejudices that the generations before them were raised with and projected into their futures. Collectively, we are not there yet, because we cannot instil those values if we do not have them ourselves. The top-down approach, as cumbersome and confronting as it is, must exert social pressure because we cannot afford to wait a generation for the bottom-up approach to drive us toward equality. We need to meet it in the middle.
It is no surprise that top-down pressure will be resisted, nor should we be surprised that such an approach seems counterintuitive. For a long time, it will be. An argument that was made to me recently was that D&I policies are counterproductive for minority people because they will feel like they didn’t have to prove themselves, or that they were appointed because of their skin colour or sexuality, and not on their own merits. Minority people don’t want a helping hand; they want to prove themselves capable. A fate worse than swimming against a tide of social norms. It’s a point that makes perfect sense, again at a face value, yet it commits a logical fallacy which is precisely what is holding back our social growth into a more accepting and inclusive society. It assumes that those of us in the privileged class worked hard to get where we are; that we fought for our success, and that only the best of us made it through.
For some of us, that might be true, but that’s not really the story whether we care to believe it or not. The narrower the range of diversity, the more cronyistic the recruiting practice. This is pervasive, even in white male dominated industries where the start line is equally paved for those who look right and speak right. It is a case of that old cliche, it’s not what you know, but who you know. But neither should it be about how you look. It should simply be – it’s who you are.
This is not a piece on the merits of D&I, those points have been well articulated elsewhere. Rather, it is a reminder that what we think are meritocracies, may not actually be so. A meritocracy does not imply fairness, just as defending the way it is make the case for the way it should be. D&I is not only about equality of opportunity for minorities, it is about diversity for everyone. It is about acknowledging that to draw out the best of humanity, we sometimes need to let others stand on our shoulders. We need to recognise that privilege comes in many forms and is inherent to the socialisation of human nature.
If we truly want the best people for the job, then we also need to accept that that person might not be you or I. But we should all do our best to find them.